Former attorney Jonah Zimiles, who founded [words] bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., three years ago with his wife, attorney Ellen Zimiles, is the first to admit that they are not typical bookstore owners. “We really didn’t have any retail background,” he told PW. “It was never our dream to have a bookstore; most bookstore owners have wanted a bookstore all their lives.” But one thing they do share is a commitment to their community. So when Ellen saw a sign in November 2008 that local indie bookshop Goldfinch was going out of business, they bought it to keep a bookstore in their community. Then they renamed it [words] and moved it nearby to a space with a 2,000-sq.-ft. selling floor and a basement that seats up to 100 people for events.
Many of the changes the couple made were linked to their second child, Daniel, who is autistic. They wanted to combine having a strong general independent bookstore with providing job opportunities for autistic teens. Jonah had become a stay-at-home dad after Daniel was diagnosed at age five. And six years later he returned to school to get an MBA at Columbia University, with the objective of creating a training center for young people like Daniel to place them in permanent retail jobs.
Establishing the center remains one of Jonah’s long-range goals; for now, he has made [words] a vehicle for various autism-support programs. The store works with local schools to take in five to 10 students who are participating in job sampling programs. To date more than 40 young people have worked at the store for an hour or two a week during the school year. It is not always easy for regular store employees, particularly at busy times. But Jonah praises his staff as “fabulous,” saying that “they find it the most rewarding part of their job.” And the store has hired part-time staffers with diagnoses along the autism spectrum: a driver, who picks up books from publishers, and another employee who helps with receiving.
[words] has a strong children’s section, which takes up one-third of the selling space and accounts for a similar percentage of sales, according to Jonah. And children’s has been growing faster than other categories. In addition to offering a broad selection of books for special-needs kids, the store encourages visits from schools that cater to them, and partners with community groups to provide programming for special-needs kids. “It’s pretty expensive to be a special needs parent,” says Jonah. “We wanted to let their children try programs for free.”
This Second Sundays programming also serves to make the community more inclusive by bringing more people in touch with autistic children. Upcoming activities include acting with performers from the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse, sewing with Tiel Roman of Roman Studios, which does costume design for movies and TV, and karate and yoga workshops with local studios. “I haven’t marketed Second Sundays aggressively,” says Jonah, “because it works best with small groups of kids. We’re quite happy to have seven or eight kids.”
So far, the [words] mission – making a priority of assisting autistic youth – seems to be working from a business standpoint, too. “Our sales have really gone up – 15% the last two years and 25% this year. We’ve been focusing on revenue growth,” says Jonah. Not that he and his wife are getting rich in the book business. They considered creating a nonprofit arm for their autism programs, but “we don’t want to be fundraising,” Jonah says. “Fortunately, we had some capital to put into [the business].” They’re planning to use that money to redo the basement and make it a more warm and inviting space.
As for the name, [words], it was the idea of Barker DZP, an ad agency that volunteered its services when the Zimileses asked for help branding their bookstore. “[words],” as the agency explains on its Web site: “was selected as an obvious reference to books, but in logo-form, the brackets ‘trap’ the words – a reminder of the challenges many autistic children have in expressing themselves.”